“You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.”—
Hindus Celebrate the Triumph of the Good with Navratri
by Susan Leem, associate producer
An Indian folk dancer poses with her troupe. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
Hindus in India and around the world are in the midst of celebrating Navratri, the colorful and light-laden, nine-day festival also known as Durga Puja. Dedicated to Durga, Hindus celebrate the mother goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahishasura — the triumph of good over evil.
Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction and transformation, then permitted Durga to see her own mother for nine days in the year. The tenth day is known as Dussehra or Vijayadashami, an auspicious time in which Hindus launch new activities or the beginning of learning.
Indian folk dancers participate in a full dress rehearsal for the forthcoming Navratri festivities that will last until October 6, 2011. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian Hindu devotee reads a copy of the "Durga Stuati" in the 700-year-old Sheetla Mata Temple of the Durgiana Temple Complex in Amritsar on September 28, 2011 during the Navratri festival. (photo Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Hindus dressed as the deities Lord Ganesh (left), Laxman (center), and Rama (right) for Dussehra held at the end of the Navratri. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian idol maker works on a miniature clay statue of Hindu goddess Durga. (photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
After Durga’s visit to her mother, her image is cast into water to represent her departure on the tenth day after Navratri.
A young boy wades through the river carrying pieces of an idol of the Hindu goddess Durga after its immersion ceremony for the Hindu festival Durga Puja in Bhubaneswar. (photo: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images)
Wug graffitti on the street. (photo: Adam Albright/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This week we interviewed Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who is now a professor emerita at Boston University, about how we learn and use the most valuable of skills: human language. She’s best known for her wug test experiment, revealing that children develop general systems to learn language.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and this Thursday, October 6th, look for the produced show via our podcast our on your local public radio station:
For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with psycholinguistics superstar Jean Berko Gleason. Join us! 1:27 PM Sep 27th
Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
Dr. Gleason says her early experience translating her older brother’s speech (he had cerebral palsy) sparked her love for linguistics. 1:44 PM Sep 27th
"Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
"Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
"It isn’t that kids learn language in bits and pieces, the children abstract the rules of the language in the same order." -Dr. Berko Gleason 1:55 PM Sep 27th
"There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
"Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
"Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
"Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
Wangari Maathai: A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places
by Krista Tippett, host
Per Ludrig Magnus, the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, signs a condolence book for Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai in Nairobi. (photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour of "Planting the Future." I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked,” and continued, “For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here’s how she answered her own question:
"I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."
“Their eyes had met, and an inexpressibly sweet sense of eternal tragedy had passed between them, between their generations—a legacy of weltschmerz as old as humanity.”—Kurt Vonnegut, a gorgeous line from Player Piano
"Where did you read the Bible?” she asked. My friend Karin used to teach religion in a Swedish public elementary school, which is why her question made so much sense to her but so little sense to me.
“In Europe,” she explained, “we see the clips of your news commentators, we see your President getting sworn in on a Bible, we know America is intensely Christian. But where do you learn it? Is it taught in the public schools, or do you just have really active Sunday schools, or what?” I quickly reassured her that in America, we keep religion out of the schools, since we are a secular nation.
“So where did you learn about Christianity?” she persisted. I had never considered the question before. I was raised Episcopalian, sort of, but my family rarely attended church. I only really started learning about Christianity when, having converted to Buddhism, I started reading books about world religions and would skim the chapter on Christianity on my way to the chapter on Buddhism. After I explained all this, Karin gave me a funny look and changed the subject. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about American religion.
American religion is very strange. At first, I thought my ignorance was an aberration, that I had been isolated in my private New England high school from the Bible-reading fervor that consumes America. The more I talked to my American friends, though — friends from all over the country — the more I began to get a sense for what I consider to be the unifying characteristic of nearly all American religion. It isn’t devoutness, or extremism, or reactionary zeal, but something much simpler: profound ignorance. One scholar, Stephen Prothero, summarizes the painful truth well in his book Religious Literacy:
“The paradox is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
Prothero backs up these accusations with some quite compelling studies. To give just two examples: Only half of American adults could identify any one of the four Gospels, and only a third were able to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity.
Well, so what? Many of my non-religious friends would take that sort of statistic as a sign of the worldwide process of secularization and the weakening stranglehold of the religious right on American public life. For them, America’s religious illiteracy proves what Nietzsche wrote over a century ago: “God is dead.”
Well, is He? Because if so, Karin’s question is something of an anachronism: Why read the Bible if religion is on its way out the door? The notion that rationality and modernity have been hammering nails in religion’s coffin ever since the Enlightenment is what sociologists call the secularization thesis, and until very recently, the secularization thesis was pretty much taken for granted within academic circles.
The funny thing is, we don’t really have any evidence for it. We’ve been assuming for a long time that religion is dying, but the world around us seems to be demonstrating just the opposite. As Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, writes in his essay “The Desecularization of the World,” “The world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.” He goes on to cite the two notable exceptions to this rule: Western Europe and academia.
Well, I guess God might be dead-ish for Western Europeans and academic elites, but Western Europe is a pretty small corner of the world, and even we academic types have to come down off the hill sometimes. When we do, we find ourselves crippled by an education system that pretends religion does not exist. As has become increasingly clear ever since September 11, religion is alive and kicking, and America is blundering its way through the 21st century, its education system trapped in the secularist fantasies of Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment pals.
This American secularity is strange, perhaps even stranger than American religion. We are okay forcing our children to swear a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, but the vast majority of public schools aren’t okay teaching our children who Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha was. These figures may or may not have been divine (how should I know?), but let’s not for a second pretend they don’t matter. Every American should graduate from high school with at least a basic understanding of the five major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), religions which most Americans today have a hard time even naming.
So where did you read the Bible? What about the Qur’an? The Bhagavad Gita? Let’s turn our public schools into a safe, critical environment where these texts, so foundational to the cultures of the world, can be read. Until we do, America shall remain crippled, staggering blindly through a world where religion, like it or not, still matters.
Zoe Chace’s report for Planet Money on the budgetary meltdown in Greece has got to be one of the better pieces of information journalism I’ve heard on NPR’s morning air. Lost in the debate of bailout-no bailout over Greece’s debt — and the necessity of Germany floating it — runs an undercurrent: the narrative of belonging to a unified Europe, and the varying perspectives of Germans on their responsibilities and the kind of community they want to be part of.
Chace’s focused narrative and inclusion of the voices of Germans from several walks of life deepen our understanding of some of the motivating factors driving this debate. She gives the listener a sense of history: how that past is living forward in the German psyche and how their identity — as a broken people, a vibrant culture, and a affluent nation — is predicated on the past and on whom Germans want to be in the future.
My only regret is the reporter’s use of “Kumbaya” in the piece. As I’ve shared before, I’ve taken Vincent Harding’s story to heart and will never use that reference again in such a way. Nonetheless, it’s a slight quibble and this type of reporting on thick subjects is something I long to hear more of.
Did anybody else listen to this? What’s your take? I’m also thinking through this as we push forward with a more ambitious agenda for On Being online in the coming year. Let’s talk.
“The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”—
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rufus Wainwright performs in KEXP’s studios in 2007. (photo: Laura Musselman)
What do you do on a 16-hour family road trip to Montana with two sons under five and a wife riding shotgun? Play a lot of music — and sing badly. But, there are certain songs, certain performers that bring on the quiet. And this live performance from Rufus Wainwright is one of them.
Fumbling around my pickup’s floorboard pickup while cruising down I-94, my fingers serendipitously happened upon an unlabeled compilation CD I had burned in 2007. Etched with grit and gravel, it actually started playing. The opening track: Rufus Wainwright’s live version of “Going to a Town” that he performed at KEXP’s studios in Seattle while promoting Release the Stars.
Trying to conjure up meanings of the song’s lyrics would require too much exegesis, if you will, for this humble post, but Wainwright’s melodic challenging of America and its brokenness is valid four years later. Through this song, he forces us to remember what we once were as a nation — even if it’s a dream — who we’ve become, and what kind of people we might aspire to be again.
When I hear a ”Daddy, daddy. Play it again!,” I know he’s the right notes.
“I know the country is open to a renaissance of spiritual-moral values, and the rabbis kill it. We have a rabbinate that has absolutely no connection to the people, no understanding of Jewish history, no understanding of the Zionist revolution.”—
—David Hartman, Jewish philosopher and Orthodox rabbi
As this quotation from our interview with the unorthodox thinker indicates, Hartman’s is a voice that challenges all types of conventions. Our show with him is airing on more than 250 public radio stations across the U.S. this week and via our podcast. If you want the unexpurgated version (like all our interviews), we’ve made the mp3 available too. How’s that for transparency!
Have you read the book "America's Four Gods: What We Say about God--and What That Says about Us" by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader? I'd love to see Krista dive into a conversation about this book and what the authors have to say! The book really changed how I understand religion and its influence on American culture as well as my own understanding of G!d/dess
No, we haven’t. I’ll take a look on our book pile. After looking at the book’s description, my read is that it probably wouldn’t be the type of interview Krista might conduct for an hour of radio. We most often focus on guests who can reveal a way in through a person’s living out of a faith, tradition, and way of life rather than an author’s findings about a particular subject.
Online, though, we have much more flexibility and a shared but more expansive focus. This book just may be right up our alley. Thanks for the recommendation!
Wangari Maathai Dies But Spirit Lives on in Song and Deed
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.
You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
The Nobel laureate from Kenya died yesterday in a Nairobi hospital from a prolonged battle with cancer. We had the privilege of interviewing interviewing Wangari Maathai several years ago, and she remains one of our more treasured interviews. But, it’s a song she sang for us that is etched in my memory.
In the waning moments of our conversation in a Minneapolis hotel room in the midst of a blizzard, we asked Ms. Maathai if she remembered singing any songs during her days of planting trees (estimated to be more than 45 million now) in Kenya. She replied:
“…we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘There is no other god. There is no other god but Him. There is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?
And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common.”
She left us with this song (audio above), a native tune in Kiswahili that is often sung by members of the Green Belt Movement while planting trees. I used to sing it to my baby boys when they were upset in the middle of the night, a pacifier for both them and me.
On her Facebook page, fans are posting some beautiful, loving memories about her and the work she did. They’re definitely worth reading.
“I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the drawing table and I’m dead. Kaput. Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”—
The celebrated author of Where the Wild Things Are and other award-winning children’s literature just released Bumble-Ardy at the age of 83. He recently lost several loved ones, including his long-time partner, and shares his thoughts on opening up to his mortality with The Associated Press.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.
Is there a thing you used to love to do that you don’t do anymore?
Maybe on the way to work or home from work, for minutes or hours, all alone, at three in the morning, on fine sunny days, in howling winter wind? For me it was biking. I’m no aficionado, but from my teens to my 20s, I always seemed to have a 10-speed Murray or a yard-sale Schwinn with barely there coaster breaks at the ready for an adventure.
But when I got pregnant years ago my lizard brain switched on, and I suddenly became mortally afraid of falling or getting hit by a car. I cleared out all the junk bikes like any other detritus. The safety and ease of buses and cars began to feel more and more normal. I thought I’d never made it back onto a bike until just recently when a friend convened a gang of moms to for a bike ride. The idea of riding a bicycle on city streets again was terrifying, but I knew these positive women and saw it as a rare opportunity to force myself back on the bike.
At first I was weaving and wobbling feeling awkward and tippy, even forgetting how hard you have to push the pedals to move. But soon my neurons found one another, fired in sync and I was stable, steering, braking. Didn’t know how to shift the tiny tabbed Shimano gears on the borrowed bike, but I grew back into the stance, the balance, the speed, even though I hadn’t moved any part of myself like that in half a decade.
From the quiet safety of an early morning city bike path, I marveled at the absurdity of how fear makes you forget to do the things that you love, and how much it takes to muster the energy to try them again.
What thing don’t you do anymore that you used to love?
Wednesday night at 11:08, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a man widely believed to be innocent. A last-minute delay went to the Supreme Court, where a stay of execution was denied.
Meanwhile in Texas, another man was executed. There was no widespread outcry for the life of Lawrence Brewer. His horrific crime was one of which he boasted, one in which there was no doubt of his guilt. He “deserved” to die.
I was troubled by the preoccupation with the “too much doubt” that characterized the Troy Davis case. Not because I disagree with the emphasis; the fact that our government would sentence an innocent man to death — and, by the way, “since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center — and then follow through on that sentence amid mounting doubt is appalling. A crime was committed in Georgia Wednesday night. One friend commented that the only physical evidence or weapon connected to the Troy Davis case was that used in the execution. That should make us shudder.
However, I found myself forced to wonder why we were comfortable executing Lawrence Brewer on the same night. The answer is obvious: Brewer committed and reveled in an unimaginably cruel hate crime, the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. I didn’t want to know about his crime, but when the phrase “I am Troy Davis” was splashed across various social media outlets, I felt like I had to add “I am Lawrence Brewer,” and I needed to know what I was really saying. Reading more about Brewer, I found a part of myself glad that he is no longer on this Earth. According to an article in The Huffington Post comparing the two death penalty cases, Brewer wrote a letter with these chilling words while in jail for Byrd’s murder: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”
No one in their right mind wants this man on the streets. But it seems to me that part of the desire to shut away and then kill someone like Brewer is not only that we want to maintain public safety — it’s that we are afraid to acknowledge what we have in common with him. We do not want someone like Brewer to be human because we do not want to see ourselves in him. I do not want to identify myself with a white supremacist whose racism led him to torture and murder a black man. It is easy for me to say that I would never commit such a crime, but what really separates me from Brewer?
Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This quote gets used a lot of the time to highlight the nice things about human community and relationships, the ways in which we can and should build one another up and take care of one another. That is absolutely right, but it seems to me that in this broken world, if there is ever going to be healing and reconciliation, we must admit that we belong to each other not only in our goodness but also in our darkness.
The reason that history continues to go through cycles of violence, even genocide, is that we continuously (and with good reason!) distance ourselves from the perpetrators of horror, so much so that we fail to recognize those same impulses in our own hearts. We condemn German citizens who did nothing while Jews were rounded up and murdered in their midst, and yet we allow men to be killed by the state, systemic injustice to deny basic healthcare to the poor, suspected terrorists to be held and tortured with no evidence but their ethnicity or nationality in the name of homeland security, and unjust wars to be waged abroad by soldiers with no resources to deal with the repercussions of taking a human life.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist (and the character portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking) said, “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’” I am reminded of John 8:7, where Jesus challenges the men accusing a woman of adultery: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
I am not advocating lawlessness and disorder. But, innocent or guilty, no human being should have their life taken by the state. We need to acknowledge the inhumanity of the death penalty as being the very thing we are trying not to see in ourselves when we wash our hands of the humanity of someone like Lawrence Brewer.
I have to point out the reactions of each victim’s family to these two executions. The family of James Byrd, Jr., whose body was mercilessly mutilated by Lawrence Brewer, who was unrepentant to the last, begged the courts not to kill him. But the family of Mark MacPhail, whom Troy Davis is accused of killing, welcomed his death, feeling that justice had been served.
I was 14 years old on 9/11. I watched our country’s sense of security crumble with those towers. I still cry almost anytime someone talks about 9/11. And yet, I have never feared terrorists. I do not worry about my safety when I travel. I have caught myself looking at Middle Eastern people with curiosity that borders on suspicion, but I have never really been concerned that he or she is a terrorist or would harm me in any way. What I do fear is that darkness that lies in the human soul, in my own soul, that darkness that leads people like the MacPhails to see death as a victory, that causes crowd members at a GOP rally to cheer when Rick Perry is asked about the record number of executions that have taken place in Texas during his term as governor. I do not fear people like Brewer. I fear the part of me that wants to cheer at Brewer’s death.
As a Christian, I believe that there is only one death in all of history that constituted a victory. If we celebrate any other human death — even the death of Osama bin Laden — we have, indeed, forgotten that we belong to each other, and until our memory is restored, we will have no peace.
I am Troy Davis. I am Lawrence Brewer. May God have mercy on my soul.
Sarah Stockton Howell is a student at Duke Divinity School and regularly blogs at The Fast I Choose.
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“For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.”—
—Troy Anthony Davis, speaking to the prison officials who executed him by lethal injection at 11:08 in a Georgia prison last night, according to an eyewitness account from an Associated Press reporter.
About the photo: A demonstrator outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 21. (photo: Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images)
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)
As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.
In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.
At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.
In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.
The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?
The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).
Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.
The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?
The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.
Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?
The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.
Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.
Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.
Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
A song I used to play and (try to) sing to my boys when they were tiny babes — and find myself repeatedly coming back to during the day and night. And, this Icelandic lullaby rounds out our show "Pagans Ancient and Modern."
The A&E television show Hoarders is hugely popular for so many reasons. Maybe we see our inner hoarder in their characters, or just want to be shocked at the sight of extreme stuff. But when writer Amy Gutman decided to declutter her storage space, she developed a fascinating idea about why our stuff is so important to us.
For decades, she paid nearly ten thousand dollars for a storage unit to avoid letting go of her things, and recently came to see much of it as worthless. In trying to comprehend how she could have kept these things for so long, she suggests that for some people our stuff is tied to our character, our being. Gutman pulls from her memory banks (but not her vast repository of stuff), Margaret Jane Radin’s paper on Property and Personhood:
"Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. They may be as different as people are different, but some common examples might be a wedding ring, a portrait, an heirloom, or a house.
One may gauge the strength or significance of someone’s relationship with an object by the kind of pain that would be occasioned by its loss. On this view, an object is closely related to one’s personhood if its loss causes pain that cannot be relieved by the object’s replacement. If so, that particular object is bound up with the holder. For instance, if a wedding ring is stole from a jeweler, insurance proceeds can reimburse the jeweler, but if a wedding ring is stolen from a loving wearer, the price of a replacement will not restore the status quo — perhaps no amount of money can do so.”
Clearly there is no end to what kinds of objects can be imbued with this kind of meaning. One question that has not only legal but philosophical implications is how much of personhood is the culmination of experiences. And maybe those experiences are deeply tied to property, where some may find the necessity and pain of attachment. The one thing I wished Gutman had revealed in the article was how she released her attachment to her stuff.
“I’m not sure Apple even thinks about the competition. They’re uniquely themselves without worrying about anyone else. When I worked for Steve there was little discussion about the competition. The aim was for us to be the most extreme version of ourselves. When you adopt that approach, it causes you to think about things in a different way.”—
How should we be “the most extreme version of ourselves” in our own work lives? If more of us lived out this philosophy on the job and perhaps in our personal lives, would we be better off for it? I’m thinking, “Yes!” (within reason, of course). *grin*
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (photo: Ran Phang/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh comes from one of the oldest families on record in Jerusalem. His Muslim ancestors have been in the Holy Land since at least the seventh century. Earlier this year, Nusseibeh traveled to Cambodia where he glimpsed inside another ancient civilization. And it was there, as he tells it in the audio link above, that he had an epiphany about God:
"One thing that struck me was the four faces in many of the gates that were on those temples of Buddha. I was asking the guide what they stood for. He said, "Care, compassion, charity, and equality are the four faces of Buddha in those temples. And as he said them I just felt, to me, this is God. And I’m not a Buddhist."
During the interview with Krista, he poses this provocative question that has stuck with me ever since:
"I was in Italy not too long ago. For some reason, the book has actually been really popular over there. And a journalist there asked me, ‘What if we were able to do genetic screening for autism?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s actually a really difficult question, because what are you prepared to lose?’"
A Skeleton Key to Stories and Ideas, Legend and Myth
by Krista Tippett, host
Sari Nusseibeh and Krista Tippett at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem (photo: Trent Gilliss)
When we were in Israel and the West Bank this past spring, the momentum was building for what is now unfolding on the floor of the United Nations — a new approach to Palestinian sovereignty that, depending on whom you listen to, might change everything or might change nothing. Still, while the new energies of the emerging Middle East herald new beginnings with uncertain outcomes, they are bringing a definitive end to the recent status quo.
But “recent” is a relative term, as I palpably experienced in Jerusalem and as Sari Nusseibeh embodies in his person. “Recent” in American minds might be a matter of months, perhaps years. Here it is a matter of centuries. Seeking to understand that profoundly different sense of time and history is the only way we will be able to see the complexity of what is now unfolding — to apply caution where it is needed, hope where it is warranted, and a sense of how we can best care. Sari Nusseibeh’s voice is a gift towards that end.
For starters, he has an utterly fascinating personal story, which contains layers of Arab history now shaping history in the making. The original “Nusaybah" was a female companion — and fellow fighter — of the prophet Mohammad. And sometime after the Muslim entry into Jerusalem in the seventh century, one of Nusaybah’s relatives was appointed the official keeper of the keys to the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, an elaborate ritual of opening and closing the church’s ancient wooden doors with an oversized skeleton key continues, and Sari Nusseibeh’s family remains part of that ritual.
Fast forward 13 centuries, give or take, and his mother’s family lost everything when the state of Israel was created, out of war, in 1948. His father, nevertheless, had an illustrious career as a statesman — as governor of Jerusalem, Jordanian ambassador to London, and Jordanian minister of defense. For, in one of those chapters it is easy to lose sight of the “recent” history of the Middle East — before the watershed year of 1967, when the current and ever-contested borders of Israel and Jerusalem were drawn — the West Bank was a territory administered by Jordan, not Israel.
In the sweep of his memory and experience, then, Sari Nusseibeh provides helpful, necessary context for thinking about the Arab world as it’s evolving in real time today. His perspective concretely addresses current events. But it is the combination of this lived perspective and his philosophical mind that makes his wisdom uniquely illuminating and useful. He sees through current events, through political cycles of turmoil and progress, to the “human evolution” that is necessary for real change to happen. He argues forcefully that this is underway, albeit painfully slowly, and cannot be measured merely in terms of politics and peace processes, either successful or failed.
Sari Nusseibeh’s stories and ideas leave me with so much to think about. And from his unusual vantage point, he adds yet a new layer of complexity to my thinking about the contradictions, perils, and promise of events in this land: the layer of myth and legend and their force in human life. Naming this piece of the picture actually helps bring some of the rest into a more manageable focus. This part of the world, he knows in his bones, brings a special intensity to the human inclination to shape reality as much on the basis of what is imagined as what is real. We must take this seriously as a way human beings make sense and find their ways toward truth. He speaks to the evolutionary possibility in all of our lives, and all of our societies, when he says this of the “legends and myths” that are part of rock-solid reality in his land:
"You have to somehow grow into them, grow out of them, know how to deal with them, live peaceably at them — while at the same time accepting other myths that may conflict with them. But I think it’s happening."
About the embedded photo: A keyholder to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre locks the front door before ceremonially passing the key through a lower portal to a Greek Orthodox priest on the inside. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
“Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.”—
—William Least Heat-Moon
Blue Highways has to be one of the most profound literary travelogues I’ve ever read. It’s almost 20 years old now, but his portraits of America — its people and its geographies — remain unequaled and in the process he gives of himself. For all you Kerouac fans, you might have a new hero for an author, or at least one who you can relate to in a whole new way.
I was watching the gathering clouds and their shifting shadows on those familiar mountains for quite a while. I saw you, but it wasn’t until I turned and took a step that I could truly see you.
With an intake of breath, my heart expanded in awe, recognizing yours, so perfectly formed.
How many others had passed by without noticing? What if I had not turned that afternoon, had not taken a step?
Gratitude awakened, witnessing this mirrored image of sacredness balanced on the mountainside.
You. Me. God.
Standing as One in this single moment of grace.
I love this tree. I love remembering the feeling of awe that filled me when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and realized that the branches and leaves grew into a perfect heart shape. But I didn’t see it right away; it took a while until I was standing in just the right position to be aware of what was in front of me the whole time.
The form was there, the core essence of holiness was present all along, but I had to orient myself properly in order to recognize it. I think the same can be said for the holy essence that resides within each of us.
During the month of Elul, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a Jewish spiritual practice to make t’shuva — to turn, return to our goodness, our godliness, to God.
We turn inward. We look in our hearts and examine closely the mountains of mistakes we have made. We turn towards those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness. We promise to do better — at the very least to try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the year to come. We do what we can to repair what we have broken. We make a conscious shift from where our hearts were positioned when we were intentionally hurtful or simply not paying attention to our words and actions. We return to God awareness, remembering that it is when we forget our own divinity and that of others that we inflict harm.
We choose to change, to grow. Like the micro-movements of alignment a yogini must make to settle into vrkasana (tree pose) with strength, firmly rooted, balanced, open, present, we readjust our inner stance until we can see beyond the misdeeds, harsh words, insincerity, apathy, judgment and wounds to discover our own holy hearts, beautifully formed, strong, rooted, balanced, open and fully present; silhouetted before the jagged background of those mountains. The dark clouds move aside, our holiness shines brilliantly. It was always there. Here. We forgive ourselves; perhaps the hardest step of all. We have returned.
Laura Hegfield is a daughter, sister, wife, mother and lover of life with an artist’s soul. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years ago, she is no longer able to work outside her home. She stays engaged with the world through photography and shares her journey on her blog.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service
by Rick Elgendy, special contributor
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.
Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.
The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.
Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”
With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.
Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.
But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.
In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.
Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
In Cuban Santeria (also known as La Regla Ocha and La Regla Lucumi), orishas are revered deities who rule over different earthly elements. They are called through dance and drum rituals to interact with humans.
Oshun, for example, is an orisha associated with fresh water. She represents female sensuality and beauty. Oshun’s movement is fluid and coquettish, which is what you’d expect from a goddess of beauty. Her signature color is yellow and she typically carries a fan with her, which she sometimes wields as a weapon. When Oshun laughs, she’s preparing to punish someone. It’s only when she cries that she’s truly happy.
This summer, I realized a decades-old dream of traveling to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, specifically the dances of the orishas. Before the trip, I understood the dances as reflections of the orisha’s personality. But Alfredo O’Farril Pacheco (pictured below, in red shirt), a master dance instructor based in Havana, says that the orisha dances also tell a story. When you know the story, it changes how you embody the dance.
In the case of Oshun, one dance movement pantomimes the orisha splashing water on her body. You can see this in the video at about 53 seconds. Oshun is bathing in a river, preparing to seduce the warrior Ogun.
At the time, Ogun was ”ranking off a lot of people’s heads,” as O’Farril Pacheco explains in Spanish. The other orishas knew they couldn’t stop Ogun by force, so Oshun was recruited to seduce him out of the forest and stop him from killing. Before she could begin her temptation, Oshun first needed to clean herself after menstruating; so she washes herself in the river, splashing water over her back during the process.
I learned this Oshun movement years ago, but never knew the story. Before I would scoop my arms forward, towards my heart. O’Farril Pacheco offered the image of the river and the story of the seduction and I started lifting my hands higher, above my heart, and “tossing the water” over my back.
He also taught us to think about the environment the orishas inhabit when we’re dancing. Some of the orishas live in the forest. When you walk in the forest you have to pay attention and pick up your feet. There’s also a difference between owning the forest and living in it. When you live in a place but don’t own it, you tread with alertness and caution. These narrative elements aren’t extraneous. They convey rich layers of meaning through movement.
Another dancer I met on my trip, who is initiated into Santeria, told me that an enduring theme of Oshun’s narrative is that people constantly underestimate her. In a parallel way, I underestimated the narrative richness of the orisha dances. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface and have so much more to learn. Oh what a gift to learn these stories, and dance these stories anew.
About the lead image: Callejon de Hamel. (photo: Amy Goodman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
It’s Jewish tradition to read Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul, which falls during August and September. In this month of Elul, we have no holidays. It’s the month where we are supposed to turn inward and prepare for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It always seems like this month should be one of quiet reflection, but it never is for me.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation…”
I started to adopt this practice a few years ago, and found that the words of the Psalm were exactly what I seemed to need to get through the month, which seems to have become a time of trial in my life each year. This year, like so many recent ones, seems to be following this pattern.
“Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;”
I’m conscious of not only my own personal trials and tribulations this year, but also our societal ones. So far this month, there have been hurricanes and floods on the East Coast and terrible droughts and fires in the South and West. We’ve also had bad economic news and the beginning of the remembrances of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th.
“Hear, O LORD, when I call with my voice, and be gracious unto me, and answer me.”
When I read the words of Psalm 27, it resonates deeply within my body. It doesn’t matter which translation I read. The words feel like mine. They feel like my cry for help to deal with a world that seems to be spinning out of control, whether personally or globally.
“Teach me Thy way, O LORD; and lead me in an even path,”
Each day as I read the Psalm, I’m aware that I am one day closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the days of remembrance and judgement. I think of the imagery we use: the gates of heaven open on Rosh Hashanah and close on Yom Kippur. I think this is sad to think that the gates of divine blessing can only be open to us during this short nine-day period of time.
“If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”
Then I think, ‘Maybe this is why Elul is always so hard. Maybe the infusion of divine energy that is opened to the world so fully at Rosh Hashanah is fading out? Maybe thousands of years of this pattern has ingrained itself so fully on the world that we all feel it? Maybe what we need to do is be extra kind to each other and the world during this time, not for “repentance,” but rather because we need to support each other?’
“Wait on the LORD; be strong, and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the LORD.”
I believe in the cycles of time. I believe in mythic calendars that move our souls. I look to the “land of the living” to see the beauty, wonder, and mystery of G-d/dess, but it is hard to see in the fading light of the year. I will be strong. I will use these ancient words to remind me of my priorities and to sooth my fears. I will take refuge in Psalm 27 during this time of twilight because I know the sun will rise again and we all will be renewed and refreshed.
Carly Lesser (a.k.a. Ketzirah – קצירה) is Kohenet, celebrant, and artist whose passion is helping Jews who are unaffiliated, earth-based, or in interfaith/interdenominational relationships connect more deeply with Judaism and make it relevant in their everyday lives. She is an active blogger and prayer leader on PeelaPom.com and PunkTorah.org.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Cool new music and a good cause. Hard to argue with that.
This weeks’ track comes from a new project put together by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz fame. In July, he traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a group of 11 producers to record an album in 5 days… and film the whole process. The result is a remarkable collaboration across cultures called Kinshasa One Two. This song “Hallo” appears to be the early hit from the album. All proceeds from the record will go to Oxfam, which is providing aid to those affected by the deepening humanitarian crisis in the DRC.
I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.
A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.
Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.
If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.
"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again." ~Etienne Gilson
Peter Foges described Weil as “preternaturally a worker by brain, not by hand. Small, myopic, physically awkward and weak, it is difficult to think of anyone less suited to toil in a factory, workshop or field.” And yet she championed manual labor as a cure for the social ills of the modern world.
Grandma May Ng holds her great-grandson Penuel. (photo: Melody Ng)
I don’t know that I have ever paid much attention to the
legend behind the Moon Festival, but I sure love moon cakes. I haven’t bought them in years, because my grandmother always sends me a box of my favorite — lotus seed paste (a thousand times yummier than the usual red bean!) with one egg yolk per cake — from a good bakery in Los Angeles.
Last September, she gave me my box in person because I was in LA for my cousin’s wedding and spent a few days with her. I brought the moon cakes back to Minnesota, ate one right away, and gobbled up the second during the Moon Festival. The other two are still in my refrigerator. I haven’t been able to eat them.
My grandmother died last October, at the age of 96, just a couple weeks after the Moon Festival. Those two moon cakes are the last I’ll ever have from her — from her thoughtfulness and generosity. Seeing them each time I open the egg compartment where I stashed them makes me happy.
My husband says it’d be terrible to my grandmother to let them go bad. It’s true. She reused paper towels and never wasted food (and moon cakes are quite the luxury at $33 for a box of four). But I’m not sure moon cakes can go bad. In the past, I’ve kept them to savor over many months, and the ones my grandmother gave me a year ago still look just fine. That’s not a quality I’d want in most of the food I consume, but, with moon cakes — especially my two remaining moon cakes — I guess shelf-life longevity is just fine.
I’ll break out one to share with my two- and four-year-old tonight. They can recall memories of their Bak-Po, I’ll tell them some new stories, and we’ll talk about how she loved us so much that she’s providing us moon cakes, even when she’s no longer here with us.
And just in case the kids want more moon cakes, I’ll stop by the store on my way home today to get a new box before they’re gone for the year. Because my last moon cake’s staying in the fridge.
Melody Ng lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is an analyst for APM’s Public Insight Network.
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The egg yolk inside the moon cake evokes the full harvest moon. (photo: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)
For many Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, the moon festival or mid-autumn harvest festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. That is, today, September 12th, 2011.
Legend says the wife of a great archer flew to the moon after drinking a powerful elixir that was meant for him as a reward for shooting down extra suns that were scorching the earth. It’s a time to join with family to share a traditional moon cake, a bean paste-filled sister to the American fruit cake meant for giving rather than actually eating. Families also gather to watch the scheduled full moon. The Hong Kong Observatory has even made a chart of recommended viewing times.
A harvest moon. (photo: beaumontpete/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)